Challenging times …

The issue of employability and job security amidst these challenging times, with reference to specific organisations.

Alistair Lee, Niamh Mackenzie, Fraser Morrison and Abby Roberts (edited by SJ Crossan)

The Coronavirus does not pick and choose who to target – everyone is at risk. Therefore, on March 23rd, the UK went into full scale lockdown, three days after the Government put in place restrictions on select businesses. This lockdown has had a detrimental effect on almost every business, and thus has affected their employees in turn. A few months ago, before the COVID-19 outbreak and the World Health Organisation declaring a worldwide pandemic, most people would never have heard of the word ‘furlough’. Now, it is on everyone’s lips. It is critical for organisations to deal with their staff in the correct manner when it comes to their job. If not, their livelihood is at risk and their family’s livelihoods are at risk, particularly if they cannot take advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme.

Some companies have understood this and dealt with their employees correctly and efficiently, while some most certainly have not. People do not forget. If an organisation comes out of this pandemic looking worse for wear, due to their negative actions, it certainly will not recover quickly – if ever.

Virgin is one of many companies to handle this situation extremely poorly. Richard Branson has never been particularly liked by the people of the UK, plus he owns an airline – one of the most disliked types of organisations due to their price hiking. Therefore, this pandemic could have been used to gain some trust back – instead, it has done quite the opposite. On March 26th, Virgin Atlantic Airways said they would reduce their daily flights by 80% amid the drastic decline in travel owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Like many organisations, this steep decrease in business led Virgin to look at where they could cut costs to try and save the business. They decided to do this through their staff. Employees at the UK airline have been forced to take eight weeks of unpaid leave over the next three months. Amid backlash from this decision, Virgin released this statement:

“An increasing number of countries are now closing their borders – most significantly, the US, where a travel embargo from the UK comes into force on Tuesday (17th March). Though this was expected, it has accelerated the sharp and continual drop in demand for flights across Virgin Atlantic’s network, meaning immediate and decisive action is needed… Today, Virgin Atlantic will put drastic measures in place to ensure cash is preserved, costs are controlled, and the future of the airline is safeguarded.” (The Street, 2020)

While this seems a fair and logical response on the surface, if you delve a bit deeper, you begin to understand why it is so horrific that Virgin are not paying their staff while they’re on leave due to COVID-19.

Virgin Atlantic boasts revenues of £2.8 billion, with the Virgin Group as a whole commanding revenues of over £19 billion. (Virgin Annual Report, 2018). In addition to this, Richard Branson has a net worth of $4.4 billion (Forbes, 2020). In 1971, Branson was convicted and briefly jailed for tax evasion. This experience has not changed his attitude however, since in 2013, he described himself as a ‘tax exile’ having saved millions in tax by ending his mainland British residency and living in the British Virgin Islands. (The Daily Telegraph, 2013). And it is not just him personally that is doing this – his entire business empire is owned by a complicated series of offshore trusts and companies. If he were to liquidate all the company’s assets, he would pay extremely little in tax.

When you consider all the above, does Virgin’s statement seem fair and logical now? A multi-billion-pound organisation owned by a multi-billionaire who lives on his own private island that can fetch up to $87,500 per day, asking for a £500 million bailout from the Government (funded by taxpayer money) just so they can pay their staff doesn’t seem particularly fair and logical.

Denmark, Poland and France have all refused to bailout tax haven-controlled companies. The UK should do the same – refuse to pay the £500 million and tell Richard Branson to dig deep into his particularly selective pockets.

Virgin are not alone, however, when it comes to receiving criticism for their approach to dealing with staff during these strange times. British pub chain, JD Wetherspoon have recently received a lot of backlash from their questionable approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. The chain insisted that it could not afford to pay its staff during the crisis until the government had reimbursed the company for their wages (Davies, 2020). Tim Martin, founder of the company, sent a video out to his employees explaining the situation and the approach that the company had chosen to take after the government had called for all pubs to be shut to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (Ng, 2020). The employees were told that they would only be paid for the hours that they had worked up until 22nd March 2020 and that no further pay would be given until the furlough scheme had been put in place. The government had announced that they would pay 80% of staff wages up to £2,500 (Munbodh, 2020). However, this left many employees worried, due to the fact this could take until the end of April (Davies, 2020). Martin told his 40,000 employees that if they needed a wage, then they should consider taking on work with Tesco (Munbodh, 2020), causing considerable anger from employees who felt that they were unappreciated and being “abandoned” by their employer. Not only were Martin’s employees left questioning when they would next receive a wage, but many of the company’s workers were even stripped of bonuses that they had already managed to achieve (Ng, 2020).

The company received a lot of backlash online for this approach to the situation, with many members of the public vowing to “boycott” Wetherspoons pubs in the future once they have reopened for business (Brown, 2020). Piers Morgan, co-presenter of Good Morning Britain, posted on Twitter “Don’t go to Wetherspoons,” in response to Martin’s attitude towards the Covid-19 Crisis (Ingate, 2020). One member of the public even responded to the company by leaving a message for Tim Martin by graffitiing one of the Chain’s many pubs, The Postal Order. The words “pay your staff” and “pay up” were sprayed onto the windows of the pub in red and white paint (Ng, 2020). Photos of the vandalised pub, which were shared online, received a lot of support from individuals who condemned Tim Martin for suggesting to his employees that they should take on employment with Tesco following the closure of his pubs (Ng, 2020). A strike movement was also formed by a group of Wetherspoons employees called ‘Spoon Strike’ and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) and demanded that the company give them full pay. In a statement released by Spoon Strike, they wrote “Whilst other companies such as Costa have promised their staff eight weeks fully paid, Wetherspoons have left over 40,000 people without their next pay date. With no means of paying for rent, bills or food, and no warning” (Ng, 2020).

Following the large wave of backlash that Tim Martin and his company received, Mr Martin later announced that the first payment for his workers under the government job retention scheme would be made on 3rd April ‘subject to Government approval, and weekly thereafter’ (Brown, 2020). However, many members of the public are still shaming Martin, who is supposedly worth over £40million (Munbodh, 2020) for his initial response to the crisis and continue to vow to “boycott” Wetherspoons pubs once they have reopened for business.

The impact on the employment market in the UK is not all negative, however.

One example of initiatives that have been employed to help protect workers is a free online training scheme for furloughed individuals. The Department of Education run initiative offers online training courses for workers who are furloughed in order to “ improve their knowledge, build their confidence and support their mental health so they have skills they need to succeed after the coronavirus outbreak” (BBC News, 2020). The hope is that it helps to mitigate some of the impact the crisis will have on a post lockdown employment market, by facilitating the growth of workers during the pandemic.

Regarding individual firms that are looking after their staff during the crisis, the Co-operative Group are a fantastic example. To show their appreciation for their key workers keeping shops stocked and the nation fed, they have rewarded over 7,500 staff with an extra week worth of pay in addition to doubling their staff discount. The hope is to help to ease the financial burden they face during lockdown and to reward staff for going “above and beyond” during lockdown (Derby Telegraph, 2020). This shows that not all employers are looking to shirk away from the issues surrounding their workers’ rights – some are bolstering them and trying to offer a more supportive and robust working relationship during these trying times.

Ford’s UK division have also been taking steps to protect their workers by considering the duty of care that they have towards them. Despite March normally being one of the busiest months of the year for car sales, Ford’s UK boss Andy Barratt prevented any of his dealerships from ordering new cars. Barratt stated that cash liquidity was important in these financially pressing times and in order to prevent mass furlough he insisted that the cash reserves were better use keeping staff employed. The firm have opted to pay staff until at least June, where they will review the situation and take necessary steps from there. This will protect the rights of employees and their financial security, with Ford stating that; “All dealers need to focus on, is keeping their people safe, keeping their business viable and the revenue they need in return to keep those things going.” (Chaplin, 2020). They have not only done this for financial reasons – the company recognised that there is a great level of stress put on workers in the months of April and March to shift all of this new stock but they decided it was more important to protect the mental and physical health of employees and as a result, they have instructed that staff should work from home where possible. This shows a great awareness of the duty of care that Ford have for their staff, taking action to support their financial wellbeing, in addition to physical and mental health of their staff in these uncertain times.

After the initiative of companies such as The Co-op and Ford, the UK staple that is Boots have followed suit.

Boots is one of the largest retailers in the UK, both in terms of revenue and number of shops. Boots have around 2,500 shops and employ over 63,000 people across the United Kingdom – these range from local pharmacies to large health and beauty shops.

Due to the recent COVID-19 breakout, many shops and retailers have been forced to shut. Like other pharmacy chains, Boots have been designated as an essential retailer which is why they have remained open during this worldwide pandemic. However, staying open opens a whole new can of worms – particularly when it comes to keeping employees and customers as safe as possible, all the time.

To make sure that Boots employees are fully protected, they have put many factors in place to protect and support their staff, to take care of their customers by providing a consistently high service, and to also protect their business. By taking these measures, it ensures a safe, secure employment through difficult trading conditions. Some of the measures that have been taken by Boots to comply with their duty of care for their staff and customers include:

  • Flexible hours to cope with increased demand
  • Closing stores for one hour each day to clean and sanitise surfaces
  • Plastic visors provided for staff
  • Masks/aprons/gloves provided
  • Workers always asked to remain two metres apart throughout the day
  • Maximum of 3 customers allowed in the shop at the one time to maintain social distancing
  • Perspex screens put up at counters.

Boots are in some ways in a different trading position than many other companies across the globe. Their role is to provide healthcare to customers and to make sure patients receive vital medical products. Their employees benefit from this, but in turn they also have to now work in difficult and unsafe conditions with the COVID-19 situation, so Boots have to make sure they provide as much personal protection to safeguard their employees and customers, and to let them continue to trade effectively.

Boots employees do not have the risk of being put on furlough or being made redundant. They provide an important service and their employees are classed as Front-Line Workers, who have the permission under Government guidelines, to carry on working at their normal place of work. Because of these conditions, Boots employees feel that they continue to have job security, and do not have the worry of losing their income as many others do, through these difficult circumstances.

Instead of closing stores and pharmacies, and putting employees in insecure positions, they have created jobs out of this situation. Due to the high demand of prescriptions being delivered to patients aged 60 and above, they have had to recruit more than 400 new drivers for the pharmacy delivery and collection service, where prescriptions are collected from doctors’ surgeries. This has been done to cope with unprecedented demand but overall it is a major benefit as many people may have been made redundant and are grateful of having the opportunity to take on a different role, whilst also helping to provide support for people in need. They have also created jobs in their warehouses and distribution centres due to a significant increase in its online business.

Conclusion

In the coming weeks, the lockdown measures may or may not be lifted. However, even if they are, there will be several restrictive measures put in place and thousands of businesses will still not be allowed to open. This means that organisations will need to continue to support their staff as much as possible, and if they are not currently supporting staff to the best of their abilities, they will need to start doing so. It is as simple as that. For what is a relatively short period of time to take a financial hit by paying staff in full, while not bringing in any revenue, it is a drop in the ocean when you consider the potential long term impact of millions of customers boycotting the business because of the way they treated their staff during this pandemic.

Copyright Alistair Lee, Niamh Mackenzie, Fraser Morrison and Abby Roberts, 28 April 2020

Published by

sjcrossan1

A legal blog by the author of Introductory Scots Law: Theory & Practice (3rd Edition: 2017; Hodder Gibson) Sean J. Crossan BA (Hons), LLB (Hons), MSc, TQFE I have been teaching law in Higher and Further Education for nearly 25 years. I also worked as an employment law consultant in a Glasgow law firm for over a decade. I am also a trade union representative and continue to make full use of my legal background. I am a graduate and postgraduate of the Universities of Dundee, London and Strathclyde. Please note that this Blog provides a general commentary about issues in Scots Law. It is not intended as a substitute for in-depth legal advice. If you have a specific legal problem, you should always consult a suitably qualified Scottish solicitor who will be able to provide you with the support that you require.

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